Go Forth and Multiply

Want to stop the slide in U.S. dominance? Make more Americans.

There's been a lot of hand-wringing of late regarding the imminent demise of America's global economic dominance as China's gross domectic product (GDP) outstrips that of the United States. Those concerns are overwrought -- aggregate output and average quality of life in a country are two very different things. But if you really want to preserve America's top spot in the GDP rankings, there's only one way to do it. You've got to make more Americans.

Depending on whom you ask and how you measure, the United States either already has a smaller economy than China, will have a smaller economy than China in the next few years, or will fall behind sometime in the next half-century. What seems widely agreed upon is that American economic dominance will end.

It would be nice to imagine keeping the top spot through rapid income growth. But according to the World Bank, average U.S. income growth for the last two decades was just 1.5 percent. Even in the high-rolling period between 1992 and 2000, U.S. GDP per capita grew by a little under 2.7 percent a year. Over the last two decades, China's income per capita grew at an average rate of 9.3 percent. That rate may well fall in the future -- indeed, economic theory and the scary state of the country's banks suggest it will. But it could fall by half and still outpace U.S. long-term performance by over 3 percentage points a year.

Does that mean it's all over for U.S. economic dominance? Probably. But at least Americans can delay the inevitable. If the United States can't keep up its output lead by more rapid growth of GDP per capita, then perhaps it should just find some more capita. After all, if you double the population while keeping incomes constant, you've doubled the size of GDP. And rough measures suggest that a lot of people would be willing to help -- approximately 145 million adults worldwide are keen to move to the United States, according to Gallup's global polling.

In fact, the strategy of bringing more people into the United States is already playing an important role in staving off the end of American global dominance. The United Nations predicts that China's population will rise from 1.27 billion in 2000 to nearly 1.4 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, the U.S. population is projected to grow from 285 million to 409 million -- a far more rapid growth rate. America's population will climb from 22 percent of China's to 29 percent over the half-century. And about four-fifths of that U.S. population growth will be due to new immigrants and their descendents.

The World Bank suggests that China's GDP per capita at market exchange rates was about $4,400 in 2010, compared with $47,200 in the United States. Assume, for the sake of argument, that U.S. income per head grows at 2 percent annually over the next 40 years, while China's per capita growth is 5 percent. Given demographic trends, by 2050, China's economic output at market rates will be about the same size as the America's, at around $43 trillion. But if there were none of the migration that demography experts predict over the next 40 years, the United States would have an economy only three-quarters as big as China's by midcentury. On the other hand, imagine the U.S. population grew just a bit faster -- to, say, 450 million by 2050. The country would then remain the world's economic superpower in terms of what it could buy globally, with a market income more than $3 trillion larger than China's.

Meanwhile, migration might also help close a little of the per capita GDP growth gap with China as well. A recent paper in the journal Economics Letters suggests that a 10 percent rise in a country's migrant stock increases that country's per capita income by 2.2 percent. A separate OECD study on a set of rich countries suggests the same result. Take the U.S. experience with Indian immigration as an example of the potential returns: Indian immigrants accounted for 26 percent of Silicon Valley start-ups between 1995 and 2005. More broadly, in a quarter of the U.S. science and technology companies founded from 1995 to 2005, the chief executive or lead technology specialist was foreign-born. In 2005, these companies generated $52 billion in revenue and employed 450,000 workers.

But increasing migration has other benefits for native-born Americans beyond extending the psychological comfort of holding onto the status of world's most powerful economy. Not only is there evidence against the theory that immigrants take jobs from the native-born, but they also do jobs that there won't be native-born people around to handle. As the average age of Americans climbs over the next 20 years, the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that the number of people age 65 or over will climb from 22 percent to 35 percent of the working-age population. Add in kids, and that means every 100 people of working age will be supporting 83 people above or below working age by 2030. Want to keep the cost of greens fees down for all those retirees? Import some gardeners from poorer countries. The lower cost of services provided by immigrants will also help shrink the gap with China when it comes to economic strength measured in purchasing power parity (when you adjust income measures for the different cost of goods and services across countries).

If more labor is the secret to continued American global economic dominance, there is one course other than importing it -- expanding domestic production. Paying people to get pregnant can work. But, frankly, this is a case where there is a huge advantage to outsourcing. Domestic production is very high-cost. The average expenditure to raise a child to age 18 in the United States is $227,000, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. That's the same cost as raising 34 kids living on a dollar a day to their 18th birthday in the developing world. Furthermore, importing people rather than Americans making them themselves means that there are fewer of them left in other countries. All else being equal, that means aggregate output in other countries grows more slowly (not only directly, but because migrant remittances are associated with declining birth rates). In turn, that extends America's run of global economic dominance.

If population is power, China shot itself in the foot with its one-child policy. If it had twice the population but the same income it has now, there would be little question of the country's economic dominance. This makes you wonder whether perhaps the U.S. foreign-policy establishment hadn't already figured out all this years ago. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, for example, went straight from the Pentagon to the World Bank, where he was a powerful proponent of family planning. His work at the development organization may have done more to preserve America's relative global strength than all the military buildup he orchestrated at the Defense Department.

And that means all those national security hawks who want to build a fence across America's southern border have it exactly backward. Preserving America's preeminence takes opening the gates wide. It's the only way to ensure that, in 2050, Americans can still proclaim: "We're No. 1!" Or, if the strategy is working really well, "Somos el número uno!"

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


Saudi Arabia Is Arming the Syrian Opposition

What could possibly go wrong?

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah scolded Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week for failing to coordinate with Arab states before vetoing a United Nations resolution demanding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down. Emboldened by the lack of international action, Assad's forces are now slaughtering civilians in the streets at an even greater rate. Referring to the bloodshed, the king ominously warned Medvedev that Saudi Arabia "will never abandon its religious and moral obligations towards what's happening."

The last time the Saudis decided they had a moral obligation to scuttle Russian policies, they gave birth to a generation of jihadi fighters in Afghanistan who are still wreaking havoc three decades later.

According to news reports confirmed by a member of the Syrian opposition, Riyadh currently sends weapons on an ad hoc basis to the Syrian opposition by way of Sunni tribal allies in Iraq and Lebanon. But in light of recent developments, more weapons are almost certainly on their way. After his delegation withdrew in frustration from last week's Friends of Syria meeting in Tunisia, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said that humanitarian aid to Syria was "not enough" and that arming the Syrian rebels was an "excellent idea." Soon afterward, an unnamed official commented in the state-controlled Saudi press that Riyadh sought to provide the Syrian opposition with the "means to achieve stability and peace and to allow it the right to choose its own representatives." Meanwhile, Saudi clerics are now openly calling for jihad in Syria and scorning those who wait for Western intervention. One prominent unsanctioned cleric, Aidh al-Qarni, openly calls for Assad's death.

Other Sunni Gulf states, principally Qatar, may be contributing weapons. On Monday, Feb. 27, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani said, "We should do whatever necessary to help [the Syrian opposition], including giving them weapons to defend themselves." The positions of other regional actors are less clear. But whether or not they supply weapons to the Free Syrian Army -- the armed opposition composed of defectors and local militia -- all these Sunni states now want the Assad regime to crumble because it is an ally and proxy of their sworn Shiite enemy, Iran, which destabilizes the region with terrorism and nuclear threats.

For the Saudis, depriving the Russians of a Middle Eastern toehold is an added bonus. The two countries share a long-standing animus. In the 1970s, the Saudis used their enormous oil wealth to inflict pain on the Soviets wherever they could. The Saudis fought communist governments and political movements with more than $7.5 billion in foreign and military aid to countries like Egypt, North Yemen, Pakistan, and Sudan. Saudi funding was particularly instrumental in supporting anti-Soviet (and anti-Libyan) operations and alliances in Angola, Chad, Eritrea, and Somalia.

But the Saudis didn't simply counter communism. They fueled a generation of zealous Islamist fighters who later caused bigger problems elsewhere. These Islamists were instrumental to the Saudis after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. Inspired by the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and armed with Saudi funds and weapons, Arab mujahideen poured into Afghanistan. (An estimated 175,000 to 250,000 Arabs and Afghans fought there at any given time during the war, according to terrorism analyst Peter Bergen.) After a decade of guerrilla war during which the Soviets sustained heavy losses, the Red Army withdrew, and their puppet government in Kabul fell soon thereafter.

A lot, of course, has changed. The Saudis no longer need to fight communism. The new Russians have no ideology and are driven purely by political interests. Additionally, the Kremlin is now allergic to putting boots on the ground in the Middle East or South Asia. Russia's new strategy in the region is to make money and gain influence by selling arms, military hardware, and technology to Iran and Syria.

Although arming rogue regimes may seem reckless, it's Russia's last opportunity to exert leverage in a region where, since the Cold War's end, almost every other country has turned to Washington for arms.

Tartus, the second-largest port in Syria, has been the cornerstone of Russian-Syrian naval cooperation since the 1970s. In the past decade, the Russians have doubled down with improvements and investments in what is their primary Mediterranean toehold. In recent months, Russian and Iranian warships have docked in Tartus to show support for the Assad regime. Through it, they have reportedly provided untold amounts of weaponry with which Assad's army continues to attack anti-regime protesters.

The Saudis know that if Syria falls, Tartus falls with it. That's one more reasons to send arms to the opposition.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration continues to express deep misgivings about sending weapons, claiming that the Syrian opposition is too much of a black box. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently expressed concerns that the weapons could flow to terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or Hamas. But the Saudis have run out of patience. They now unabashedly advocate for arming the Free Syrian Army.

This is not an empty threat. The Saudis know how to procure and move weapons, and they have no shortage of cash. If Riyadh wants to arm the opposition, armed it shall be. And those who receive the weapons will likely be at least amenable to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that has spawned dangerous Islamist movements worldwide.

Of course, a Saudi-led insurgency would not be in the cards if the Obama administration were not so opposed to empowering the opposition. But the longer Obama waits and the deeper the humanitarian crisis worsens, the more likely it becomes that other actors will tip the balance in Syria. Using history as a guide, none would be more dangerous than Saudi Arabia.

The Iranians and Russians may yet pay a price for propping up Assad in Syria. But if the Saudis have their way, the world may pay a price too.